Carlos Gonzalez’s gigantic breakout was one of the great stories of the 2010 season. Few players in major league history have exploded onto the scene quite the way he did — leading the circuit in hits, total bases and batting average, and finishing third in NL MVP voting.
So impressive was CarGo’s effort that he might have won more fantasy leagues for his owners than perhaps any player other than Jose Bautista, and he also earned a seven-year, $80 million contract. Not bad for a player in his first full big league season.
But in a year of amazing numbers, one stat soared so high that it makes you wonder whether Gonzalez can do it again. Major league hitters batted .297 on balls hit in play last season; Gonzalez hit .384.
To understand what .384 means — and to find out whether this amazing performance is repeatable — we need to examine how baseball research has influenced the way we’ve come to evaluate pitchers and how hitters are subject to many of the same variables, although to a lesser extent.
Ten years ago, an inquisitive student and baseball fan named Voros McCracken wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus that set the analytical community on its head. The story, titled “Pitching and Defense: How Much Control Do Hurlers Have?” posited that pitchers had very little control over a pitch once the hitter made contact. Once a hitter put the ball into play, the pitcher was at the mercy of his defense, which would decide whether the batted ball would result in a hit or an out. Our understanding grew, to the point where we also could describe a batted ball as neither the result of pitching nor defense but rather pure luck (or random variance, or however you want to describe a seven-hopper squirting through while a scorching liner lands right in a fielder’s glove).
Today, we use one five-letter acronym as short-hand for the separation of pitching and hitting from defense and luck: BABIP (batting average on balls in play). McCracken’s theory has held up well during the past decade, with few pitchers managing to post BABIP results drastically different from league norms throughout a career. (League average is typically around .300 or a shade below.) But BABIP means something different on the hitters’ side. Hitters tend to show more BABIP variance throughout their careers, both above and below league norms, than pitchers do.
One of the most common ways for a hitter to post unusually high BABIP numbers is with great speed. Ichiro Suzuki sports a career .357 BABIP, making him perennially one of the league leaders. His hitting approach is unique, specifically tailored to his ability to hit ’em where they ain’t, and to beat the play when the ball doesn’t leave the infield.
According to FanGraphs, Ichiro’s career ground-ball rate is a sky-high 55.7 percent, compared to just a 24 percent fly-ball rate. Grounders turn into hits more often than fly balls for any player. In Ichiro’s case, he is fast enough to beat out a ton of infield hits and possesses a swing that has him bailing out of the box early, propelling him halfway to first base by the time the ball takes its second hop. Ichiro’s slashing approach also has netted a career 20.3 percent line-drive rate, a high-average figure that also makes hits more likely.
By both traditional and advanced measures, CarGo ranks among the fastest players in the game today. He stole 26 bases in 2010, an impressive-enough total. But take a look at his speed score, a metric devised by Bill James that combines a player’s stolen-base percentage, frequency of stolen-base attempts, percentage of triples and runs scored percentage. By that standard, CarGo ranked 11th in the majors, well ahead of Ichiro, and also above known speedsters (and prolific base stealers) like Juan Pierre and Rajai Davis.
The bigger factor boosting CarGo’s BABIP, though, is Coors Field. The accompanying table lists the BABIPs of the Rockies’ 10 most frequently used hitters. Eight of the 10 came in above .300, four of them above .325. The list of BABIP outperformers includes fast guys like CarGo and outfield running mate Dexter Fowler but also plodders like Melvin Mora, Brad Hawpe and Todd Helton.
Coors Field is a well-known hitters’ haven, and it even helps batting average on balls in play. The league’s BABIP was .297 in 2010, but most of the Rockies far exceeded that figure.
Player 2010 BABIP
Carlos Gonzalez .384
Ryan Spilborghs .341
Dexter Fowler .328
Troy Tulowitzki .327
Melvin Mora .324
Brad Hawpe .314
Ian Stewart .308
Todd Helton .307
Clint Barmes .263
Seth Smith .256
No major league park boosts hits more than Coors, whether you’re using 2010 figures or more reliable three-year park factors. According to stat-tracking site StatCorner.com, Coors does tend to help right-handed hitters a little more than it does lefties. Still, the spacious Coors outfield, the lack of ample foul territory (as seen in parks like Oakland Coliseum) and some managers’ desire to play deep and prevent extra-base hits have conspired to boost hits across the board, be they singles, doubles or triples on balls in play, not to mention the homer spike we’ve come to know through the days of the Blake Street Bombers to more recent balls-in-humidor tactics.
Even accounting for Gonzalez’s speed, his own healthy line-drive rates (20.8 percent in 2010, 20.7 percent career) and high ground-ball-to-fly-ball rate for a power hitter (42.5 percent GB vs. 36.6 percent FB last year), and Coors Field’s significant impact, Gonzalez’s BABIP was abnormally high last year. Only Austin Jackson’s and Josh Hamilton’s numbers were higher, and only four batting-title-qualified hitters in the past three years have topped Gonzalez’s .384 BABIP from last season. Other numbers warrant concern, such as Gonzalez’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (nearly 4-to-1 in 2010) and his poor walk rate (just 32 unintentional walks in 628 plate appearances last year).
But Gonzalez is still a 25-year-old outfielder with immense physical talents, playing in the friendliest hitters’ park in the game with a skill set that suggests he’ll continue hitting — and BABIPing — his way to big numbers. Don’t expect the moon this season. Do expect another round of impressive results. Even his true level of a talent is a .350 BABIP, he’s still an All-Star.